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September 19, 2018 Articles

The Top Five Characteristics of the Best Salespeople Are Not What You Think

You may have all the makings of a successful rainmaker and not even know it yet.

By Allison Wolf

Ever wonder if you have the right personality to be good at business development?

In law firms, there is still this idea of the rainmaker as a smooth-talking, assertive, and maybe even aggressive self-promoter. In my personal experience, the great rainmakers are entirely different from this. As I write this article, I have two rainmakers in mind. The first is a business lawyer. He is the consummate professional. He is a quiet, soft-spoken man of few words. He has a sharp business mind that his clients appreciate. Although mentorship may not be his favorite thing, he has become very good at it; he delegates a great deal of work to his team, not because he enjoys supervising but because it is good for the lawyers under him and opens up room in his practice for new opportunities.

The second top rainmaker is one of the top commercial litigators in her city. She is known for vigorously defending the interests of her clients. She does this well because she invests considerable time in getting to know her clients and their businesses. She knows what’s at stake and what is most important. Her interest extends way beyond the limits of the file. She develops enduring relationships with many clients that continue well after the initial legal matter is resolved. She becomes, for many of them, their primary trusted advisor, a conduit to other lawyers who can serve their needs. She is also a passionate advocate of the younger lawyers at her firm and quick to actively cross-sell them to her clients.

To all you lawyers reading this article, let me tell you, you just might have what it takes to be a good—if not an excellent—rainmaker. In 2011, a Harvard Business Review blog post by Steve W. Martin, “Seven Personality Traits of Top Salespeople,” listed the top characteristics of the best salespeople, and most of them read like a description of the many lawyers I have the pleasure of working with:

  1. Modesty. Top salespeople score medium to high for modesty and humility and are team players. I have worked with so many lawyers who have told me they didn’t go to law school to become a salesperson and that they hate promoting themselves. Well, here is the surprising news: That sentiment is shared by some of the best salespeople out there.
  2. Conscientiousness. Top salespeople are highly conscientious about their work and are strongly motivated by duty and responsibility. Doesn’t this, too, sound like many of the lawyers you know?
  3. Achievement orientation. Top salespeople are very goal-oriented and track their performance against their targets. To develop this attribute in yourself, build your habit of setting goals and tracking your progress, with an emphasis on noticing your progress and regular action planning of next steps.
  4. Curiosity. The fourth characteristic of top salespeople is their natural curiosity. They are driven to acquire knowledge and information much like the two rainmakers I mentioned above, who engage deeply with their clients’ businesses to learn as much as possible. Asking excellent questions is an essential and often underrated aspect of business development. There is so much emphasis on “elevator speeches” and much less on the kinds of questions to ask clients and prospects that can help you learn how you can be valuable to them.
  5. Number 5 is a big surprise: lack of gregariousness! It turns out that the outgoing, over-friendly people are not the best salespeople. When establishing a business relationship, it is important that the salesperson be viewed as an authority so that his or her “advice and recommendations are followed.” I would say the same applies in law. To become a client’s trusted advisor, you need to earn the client’s respect and trust. You do this by being a good listener, by asking great questions, by proving good to your word, and by being focused on your client, not yourself.

Reader take note: I point out these traits because it is helpful to remember that the myth of the rainmaker often obscures the reality about what it takes to be a trusted professional and bring in business for yourself and your colleagues. In many cases, I find that merely working to develop new habits such as setting goals and tracking performance can get you from mediocre to good performance in a short period. What is important to know is that the values of hard work, discipline, humility, and sense of duty are assets as much for business development as they are for your legal practice.


Allison Wolf is an experienced lawyer coach at Shift Works Strategic Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia, and founder of the blog

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